Docs show FBI wrongly spied on Keystone XL protesters

Reuters / Gary Cameron
Activists opposed to the Keystone XL oil pipeline were the subject of unlawful surveillance conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly a year, according to previously classified law enforcement documents.

Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the Guardian newspaper and the Earth Island Journal have turned up more than 80 pages of FBI files detailing the United States government’s monitoring of environmental activists. A report published by both outlets on Tuesday this week show that the surveillance activities waged by an FBI field office in Houston, Texas amounted to “substantial non-compliance” with federal rules.

The documents reveal the FBI targeted a direct action anti-Keystone group called Tar Sands Blockade and monitored its actions from November 2012 to June 2014. Neither the senior FBI agent in Houston nor the Justice Department approved the operation, defying rules outlined by the attorney general.

According to the joint-report published this week, the FBI “collated inside knowledge about forthcoming protests, documented the identities of individuals photographing oil-related infrastructure, scrutinized police intelligence and cultivated at least one informant.”

Sensitive investigative matters” undertaken within the bureau require approval ahead of time from both the chief division counsel and the special agent in charge from the local field office, according to the report. Both are supposed to consider any “adverse impact on civil liberties and public confidence” that may arise in the event the investigation is made public.

Despite the protocol clearly being in place, neither of the two top officials in Houston approved targeting the Tar Sands Blockade group, the documents reveal. Nevertheless, documents suggest the operation lingered on for 11 months after it was realized unauthorized surveillance was being carried out. In addition, according to the report, the Houston office failed to find sufficient evidence of “extremist activity.”

The FBI explained the operation by acknowledging it must “take the initiative to secure and protect activities and entities which may be targeted for terrorism or espionage,” and documents obtained through FOIA requests revealed that law enforcement labeled anti-Keystone activists as “environmental extremists.”

At the same time, “FBI approval levels required by internal policy were not initially obtained,” the bureau admitted to reporters.

While the FBI approval levels required by internal policy were not initially obtained, once discovered, corrective action was taken, non-compliance was remedied and the oversight was properly reported through the FBI’s internal oversight mechanism,” representatives explained in a response to the outlets when grilled for an answer ahead of this week’s publication.

READ MORE: President Obama vetoes Keystone pipeline bill

The US House of Representatives passed a measure approving the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline earlier this year. Fans of the effort say thousands of new jobs will be created in America in order to build the infrastructure that will take crude tar sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. President Barack Obama said in February that he would veto the bill, putting the future of the project for now on ice.

"The presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously," Obama said in a statement accompanying the veto. "But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people. And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest—including our security, safety, and environment—it has earned my veto."